Wallace Brown (1930-2006)
Wallace Brown served in the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery from 1961 to 1995, making him one of the longest serving members. During this time he covered 17 general elections and 10 prime ministers. In 1995, Brown was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for services to journalism.
Listen to the interview
- Wallace Brown (1930-2006)
Interview with Wallace Brown - Part 1
T Duffy: This is an interview by Tony Duffy, volunteer guide at Old Parliament House, with Mr Wallace Brown who was a long-term occupant of the parliamentary Press Gallery in the old House. Welcome back, Wal.
W Brown: Thanks very much..
T Duffy: How long, from and to, were in the gallery here?
W Brown: I came here in November or December of 1961, until we moved out in 1988.
T Duffy: Working conditions in the old days in here, up in the Gallery?
W Brown: Working conditions were in many ways excellent. They were cramped, uncomfortable. My room in the Gallery, now long demolished, was one of the temporary rooms, temporary roof, and it leaked and occasionally the drip would actually come through onto my desk after a heavy storm. I got a bit annoyed about all this after several storms and things and I went to the Parliament House people and said look, this roof is leaking over my desk. They said oh okay, we’ll fix that, and they did. They got a great sheet of plastic and put it across the top to stop the leak. Sometime later, about twelve months later, big storm, the roof leaked. I went to the Parliament House people again and said hey listen, the roof’s leaking again. He said I’m terribly sorry but the Prime Minister’s roof was leaking so we had to shift the plastic, and they moved the plastic across. True story.
So–working conditions. I say very efficient, because everybody really knew everybody. It was excellent really.
T Duffy: Well for many years I used to come in, when we had big cricket or rugby at Manuka, and try to do a recording for Sydney, one of the people from Sydney, Norman May or one of those guys, and it was a little tiny telephone box downstairs. Jim Maxwell used to do the cricket. We’d come from Manuka, we weren’t allowed to drink all day, maybe a couple at lunchtime, and we’d have to sit down there with the sweat pouring off us until Sydney Central was condescending enough to take our call.
W Brown: Yes–an example is this. In 1988 Jim Killen did a documentary on the move from Old Parliament House to New Parliament House, so he did a documentary on the Old Parliament House. I remember he took us down to the Non-Members Bar, there was Michelle Grattan, Paul Kelly, Richard Carlton and myself, and Killen was interviewing us. He said now, what do you think of the move to the new Parliament House. The other three–Kelly, Grattan and Carlton–said oh it’ll be great, we’ll have more room, it’s dreadful down here, it’ll be tremendous. Killen got to me and I said I disagree, small is beautiful and that’s how we ought to keep it.
T Duffy: Those old tin sheds out on the roof, when did they come into force? In the early ‘70s?
W Brown: The ones on the roof–yes, in the ‘70s.
T Duffy: When the television news gathering started force…
W Brown: Yes, when the television got going, that’s when they went across.
T Duffy: You haven’t seen the old Gallery since, have you?
W Brown: I’ve seen what’s left of it, yes.
T Duffy: Well Peter Harvey was here a few weeks ago and he’s talking about getting people interested, going to talk to the two media barons and saying put your hand out and we’ll restore the OId Parliament House Press Gallery to what it was and let people go up and see it.
W Brown: Well we actually did that with our Old Parliament House Redevelopment Committee–we had people going through the Gallery and I raised money for it from the media barons and we did it all up. And now it has all just disappeared. Extraordinary.
T Duffy: Yes. Lack of consultation, wasn’t it, in those days. The actual working conditions could only be described as primitive, weren’t they–they were terribly hard for electronic news gathering people.
W Brown: Electronic in particular. Not so bad for print, but for electronic it was awful.
T Duffy: When electronic news gathering started, ENG, the place wasn’t equipped for it, was it. I mean, our little studio downstairs, it was so hot, you’d sit there waiting for Sydney Central to cue you. But I don’t know, I’ve only been up to the new Press Gallery up the top there a few times, but to me it’s just this remote marble hall, it’s like walking through a mausoleum.
You were saying you were on the original committee that was formed to look after and decide on the future of Old Parliament House. Is that correct?
W Brown: Yes, the original committee, when they finally decided they were going to keep OPH, was formed by the Keating Government. Nick Bolkus, who was Administrative Affairs Minister I think, asked me to go on it. The Chairman of this was Doug McClelland who was former President of the Senate and High Commissioner to London and so on, and I was the media representative on it. Then we had the relevant heads of departments–Prime Minister’s, Treasury and so on–and Margaret Coldrake, the National Museum Director at the time. We had several former MPs–Ralph Hunt was one, Don Chipp, Gordon Davison. We met regularly here for some years. Then the Howard Government came in and suddenly this committee just disappeared and Doug Anthony’s committee popped up and we got a letter saying thanks for your services, we’ve not got this other committee, and this committee just sort of disappeared. It was called the Old Parliament House Redevelopment Committee. Bill Blick was on it representing the Prime Minister’s Department. There were some very good people and it was this committee that actually got the Press Gallery going, got the refurbishing of the Dining Room going. We met once a week for about three or four years.
T Duffy: That was before it was reopened to the public generally, I presume, in those days?
W Brown: Yes, before it was opened generally, but it was then reopened. The Kings Hall was reopened, the Library was reopened, and we had a special little exhibition up in the old ABC room which the media–talking about Peter Harvey trying to do it again–but we actually did then. We got the main media proprietors, News Limited and Fairfax, the ABC contributed, Channel 7 and Channel 9 contributed, and we refurbished the whole old ABC room up here as an exhibit of what the Press Gallery working conditions had been like, and the tours of Parliament House included a trek up to the old ABC room to look at all this. We had the old typewriters, the old telephones…
T Duffy: Yes, that was there when we reopened, it was still there, I remember. We started in 1993 and it was still there, then suddenly I went up and it had gone.
W Brown: That equipment’s gone. Hansen designed it for us, National Museum–we had a very clever little thing where a puff of smoke came out now and then which demonstrated the smoke-filled atmosphere, there was a television broadscreen with pictures…
T Duffy: The only things left up there now are two telex machines in the old ABC room…
W Brown: We had this television thing of major events that had happened, including Gough on the steps at the Dismissal, and all the equipment.
T Duffy: It would be interesting to know where all that went–where did it go?
W Brown: Where that has gone, yes. I gave them a thing called a Teleram, which was the first laptop computer in the country–the size of a small suitcase, heavy as lead, carried it around the world several times with various prime ministers, you had to put the handset into the phone coupler to get the damn thing to work. It carried 18,000 characters and cost $11,000–that was on display up here. Now I don’t know where that’s gone. Hansen ought to know.
T Duffy: I might give Hansen a ring and see if he knows anything about it–he’s over at the National Museum now.
W Brown: The Museum must have it, or it’s somewhere in the bowels of the building.
T Duffy: It would interesting to know because it all just disappeared. The next thing we heard was they were going to strip it all down and do this, that and the other and the ABC people came aboard rather heavily and said look, we actually paid to have those cubicles put in for our sound thing, why are you going to knock them down. So they didn’t, they’re still up there, those three little sweat boxes.
W Brown: Yes, the whole exhibit was put there by the media organisations when I was on the committee. When Doug Anthony’s committee superseded us and I was in there one day and saw all this was gone, I got hold of Doug and said listen, what are you doing, what’s happening?
T Duffy: I see him when he comes down, which is not very often. He and I played rugby together for Norths and then I looked after his minister’s team for him.
W Brown: So it would be interesting to get hold of all this stuff, particularly the equipment, if you’re going to revamp it for the second time.
T Duffy: Hansen first and then Doug. I think, knowing how they work, Doug Anthony and Barry Cohen, they’re doing a pretty good job with the public service squeeze into the place. They’re insisting that certain areas be kept pristine, which is very essential, because we’ve got the public service creep in here at the moment. You go past doors downstairs–when we first reopened I think there were about two offices down there, now you walk along down towards the large committee room down there…
W Brown: Well the only reason why this place got its original impetus, after several years of neglect, until we actually persuaded governments, the Hawke and Keating governments, to actually get going and save the place, the only reason was Doug McClelland putting the pressure on Paul Keating and saying this would be a great thing to put in your Creative Nation speech, and that’s how it all came–suddenly Keating was enthusiastic about it, otherwise I don’t think we would have got there.
T Duffy: Well it’s certainly something to ask Guy Hansen. I think they may be over at the National Museum, but they shouldn’t be at the National Museum. We don’t take people up to the Press Gallery as guides anymore, we’re not allowed to officially, but I do because I take them up to show them the journalist gallery, the back of the House one there, and explain to them that they had to spread out on the Opposition side because there were over 300 journos in the building at that stage. When you take them up to the old Press Gallery they look and say 300 people? I say well, there were tin sheds out on the roof…
W Brown: Yes, on the other side, and up in the attic on the other side.
T Duffy: Actually Peter Harvey was saying one of those at least should have been kept just to show how primitive and terrible they were. There was no air-conditioning in them, just fans that used to blow the fuses every ten minutes when everyone switched their fans on. It was really a terrible old place. What about some of the characters in the building–dear old Fred Daly, for one?
W Brown: Yes, Fred Daly of course.
T Duffy: Fred used to come in here, till the day he died, about once every week. He’d tell you a story and nine times out of ten you would never have heard it–he had the biggest number of stories, the old Fred.
W Brown: Well Killen of course was one of the characters, when he was Government Whip under Menzies. Menzies never really liked Killen much. One night Jim got a bit nicely and took down the whip from the Whip’s office and decided to give a demonstration of whip-cracking from when he’d been a jackeroo out on the Barcoo. He stood outside Menzies’ office there cracking the whip up and down the government lobbies at about one in the morning.
T Duffy: I bet it cleared the Non-Members Bar out, did it?
W Brown: It cleared everybody out! I don’t know if Menzies was there at the time–I don’t think he could have been there.
T Duffy: Peter Harvey came strolling through here a couple of weeks ago. He promised that next time he’s in Canberra he’ll come in and do a segment. He reckoned that you could start a rumour down in the old Non-Members Bar, run like buggery and it’d meet you coming up the front steps–especially during the Budget session.
W Brown: See how long it would take, yes…
T Duffy: Remember Mungo McCallum–he used to sit on that stool in the corner in Old Stafford’s Corner Bar there and Alf used to run a book to see what time of the day he’d fall off his stool for the first time. Before Alf died I was talking to him at one of the PM’s games, he said old Mungo would come in at about 10 o’clock in the morning and have his heart-starter, and the hand would put the empty middy there and the next one would go. He’d never come up for Question Time, he’d listen to it, and old Alf used to run a book on what time he’d fall backwards off his stool for the first time in the day–the red beard and the spindly legs would go up in the air and away he’d go, pick himself up, dust himself down, another middy.
Characters–not many up at the new place, are there?
W Brown: Not many in the new place, no. It may be the building I think, they just don’t surface. Had characters here in the Press Gallery too of course, like Alan Reid and Ian Fitchett. Fitchett in particular was one of the great characters with The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald.
T Duffy: I go up to see my son up in the new House quite often, he’s in the personnel section, and to me it’s like walking around a tomb. You can walk for metres and metres and never see anybody–marble halls, it’s so cold and impersonal.
W Brown: Yes, it is–antiseptic.
T Duffy: What else are your favourite memories of the old place?
W Brown: Well, apart from the several dramatic moments we had in this building…
T Duffy: You were here, of course, on November 11, 1975–what are your recollections of that tumultuous day?
W Brown: Well it was very, very dramatic. Gough on the front steps. Most people were surprised actually, I think, when the House of Representatives voted no-confidence in Malcolm Fraser as Prime Minister and confidence in the Member for Werriwa and that the Speaker didn’t get to see the Governor-General and say the House has no confidence in Fraser.
T Duffy: I tell that story and I’ve been howled down several times. I’ve checked and it was correct, wasn’t it k- the dismissal notice had already been signed?
W Brown: That’s right, yes–it had been signed.
T Duffy: But supply had been passed.
W Brown: Supply had been passed, yes.
T Duffy: I’ve always been told by the historian in this building that that never happened.
W Brown: No, supply had been passed.
T Duffy: Apparently it was passed about 11 minutes past 2?
W Brown: Well early in the afternoon. Gough made the mistake of not telling his Labor senators that he’d been dismissed and they wheeled up the Budget and the Coalition let it through. If Gough had said the situation had changed, or they had a council of war meeting, Labor may have said okay, we won’t put up the Budget.
T Duffy: It was a very, very traumatic couple of days, wasn’t it?
W Brown: It was, it certainly was.
T Duffy: I remember Stewart Harris from the London Times–I bumped into him here that afternoon, he said I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it…
W Brown: Well I think most people thought that the House having carried a motion of no-confidence in the Fraser Government that the Speaker would go to the Governor-General and that the Governor-General, having set the election in motion, would reappoint Whitlam as Prime Minister, because the House had no confidence in Fraser, and the election would have gone ahead but it would have gone ahead with Whitlam as Prime Minister instead of Fraser as Prime Minister.
T Duffy: Constitutionally I don’t think that can ever happen again, can it? It shouldn’t happen again…
W Brown: Well, constitutionally it can happen. Nothing has changed. The Governor-General has the reserve powers, the Senate has the same powers. We can say that it should not have happened, that the Governor-General should not have those reserve powers, but the fact is he does and it could happen again. They should make sure it doesn’t happen again by some means and they could do that.
T Duffy: Very early on when we reopened we used to have a lot of visits from old Bluey Thompson and I got to know him well because he used to be down at Manuka on the PM’s cricket match days. Lovely guy. He used to come in, he was living in the old flats at Kingston in those days. He died and no one every found any of his memorabilia, yet he had a lot of it because he brought stuff in. We think it’s still locked away in some rotten garage or somewhere. But he went everywhere with Hawke, didn’t he–in fact I think he was one of his drinking companions at one stage.
W Brown: Not as Prime Minister. Hawke wasn’t drinking as Prime Minister.
T Duffy: No, but Bluey was. Bluey never stopped drinking, did he. He used to come in and he could talk for an hour. If we’d had a program like this then, I wish I could have got him in because some of the things he said you could not believe. He was here for a long time, of course.
W Brown: Of course, in contrast to the tensions and the aggravation of the Dismissal, the night that this Parliament closed down was a moment of great harmony and most memorable of nights, when everyone stood and sang Auld Lang Sine in the House of Representatives, including members of the Press Gallery, and then the party went on until dawn. Hawke was Prime Minister, Howard was Opposition Leader, between them they led a conga down the government lobby, playing and singing The Internationale, arms linked together. The surprising thing about this was that we expected Hawke to know the words but Howard knew the words too. That was a memorable night.
T Duffy: What do you think of the House as it is now?
W Brown: I was in there not so long ago. I think it’s impressive. The Son et Lumiere effect.
T Duffy: Yes, I think it conveys the close atmosphere. When you tell people that there were probably 80 people working in the PM’s suite.
W Brown: Last time I was in I think you had Malcolm Fraser’s voice-over on certain things, in the Rep’s chamber.
T Duffy: That’s being revised. I think Malcolm’s ghost is being replaced. He used to come out like a sepulchre figure…
W Brown: Yes, I thought that was good.
T Duffy: Yes, it was good, but it had been here since 1994. We have up to 12 or 14 schools a day coming through here now, which is a bit of a worry, especially on the fabrics in the old chambers.
W Brown: That’s very good though, and the National Portrait Gallery is excellent of course. Our old committee that I was referring to earlier, it was our committee that was actually here when the darlings turned up and said we’ve got to have it here, have a National Portrait Gallery here. That’s how it all started.
T Duffy: All the rooms along the Lobby, they’re used for the cartoons–Pickering and Pryor–they draw a tremendous number of people here. I was on on the last long weekend on the Sunday and we had over 1500 people through. And when Floriade is on the Kings Hall is absolutely swamped. The architects apparently reckon now that the old place is good for another two hundred years, structurally.
What are your recollections of the old green building over there, the old Parliamentary Lawn Bowls and Croquet Club, wasn’t it?
W Brown: Yes, and the annex that went out there somewhere. It was weird that you had to cross over a road to get to various members’ offices.
T Duffy: You’ve seen all the work that’s going on to redevelop the gardens?
W Brown: Yes, that’ll be good.
T Duffy: It will be–I think it should have been done a long time ago. But there was talk of knocking down that and I think Barry Cohen went into bat very strongly and said no bloody way, that stays, because the NCDC or the National Capital Authority were going to make it more modern. We should get the tennis courts back and things like that I suppose.
Do you find that the new building is a sort of devastated area in the fact that you can’t get close to politicians?
W Brown: The new building is a splendid piece of architecture, the landscaping is terrific, the artefacts in there are terrific, the portraits, it’s a splendid gallery, restaurant, club, Great Hall, place for the people and so on. There’s only one problem–it’s not a parliament, the new parliament building. The reason it’s not a parliament I think is that it’s too big, and unlike here in Kings Hall where everybody had to meet and mingle and cross Kings Hall–people, media, members, prime minister, ministers, librarians, senators, public servants, and the ordinary old bloke off the street, all in Kings Hall–which was only correct for a house of the people.
Up here in the new parliament, members don’t relate to other members, members don’t relate to senators, members don’t relate to ministers, ministers don’t relate properly to the prime minister, and in fact the media doesn’t have the access it should have–that’s a question of the building–but that’s probably not as important as just not having the relationship between the people and the members.
When it first opened up there, Hawke was Prime Minister and he was very popular of course, people would come into the auditorium there with the marvellous marble pillars and beautiful stuff, and I’d go down and see what they were saying. You’d hear them say yeah, that’s great, beautiful, then they’d say now, where do we see Bob Hawke? And Bob Hawke is a kilometre away behind all sorts of security, so they don’t see Bob Hawke.
T Duffy: Well I remember after Question Time down here in the old Hall, it was like the village green. If members wanted to get something on air or in the press the next day they only had to go down and find somebody.
W Brown: Yes, well that’s what a parliament is about. If a parliament is the house of the people, then the new building is not a parliament. That’s my bit.
T Duffy: Graham Evans once said, when he was Hawke’s minder I suppose you’d call him–what a minder he must have been too–he always used to call it the village green because that was where you got the cross-pollination of ideas.
W Brown: As you should do. If we’re in a democracy, that’s how it should be.
T Duffy: The trouble up there is you can walk for years and not see a politician.
W Brown: You could go up there now and fire a shot down a corridor and not hit anyone. It goes for miles. It’s a beautiful building, as I say, but it is not a parliament.
T Duffy: An overseas visitor, one of the rugby teams, said it gives me the impression of being a tomb, a sarcophagus he said, to a dead nation.
W Brown: It’s a great traffic roundabout–it’s a magnificent traffic roundabout.
T Duffy: It’s not personalised is it–remote. But you don’t deny I suppose that it was obvious that this place had outlived its usefulness?
W Brown: Yes, it had, but they could have kept this place going–if they’d spent half the amount of money that they spent on the new parliament, extended it or gone underground at the back. I’m sure they could have devised a way to keep this as the parliament and made this a permanent parliament.
T Duffy: I suppose you and others up there had a good smile when the red windmill was …
W Brown: I haven’t actually seen the red windmill.
T Duffy: I’ve only seen a picture of it–it was 60 feet high with red bands going out for about 8 feet and it revolved in the wind.
W Brown: I haven’t seen it. I saw Alan Ramsay’s article.
T Duffy: I was saying to Noel, I can just imagine Tuckey’s expletive, expletive, expletive when he wandered down and asked them what they were going to do with it. The next day the National Capital Commission said the project was abandoned, it was overpriced. Even Doug Anthony wrote a rude letter to John Howard too. The National Capital Authority has no jurisdiction over that parliamentary triangle.
What were the good things about the old building–the intimacy with politicians, the complementation of the press, the media…
W Brown: Yes, from a professional point of view, the intimacy with politicians was the best, that was the important aspect of the old building.
T Duffy: Yes, it’s a shame, but at least the old building is still here.
W Brown: Yes, it’s a fine building and it’s going pretty well now. And the landscaping is superb, fitting into the mould of the new parliament house.
T Duffy: In your time here, who would have been the most approachable prime minister for the media? Probably Robert James Lee, I presume–was it?
W Brown: No–it was Harold Holt. Holt was the most courteous of prime ministers, and of treasurers. Holt as Treasurer never had a Press Secretary–very different times. You could just knock on Harold’s door and open the door and if he was sitting there with someone he’d say come back later will you, if there was no one there he’d say come in. Harold Holt was THE most accessible, most courteous of all prime ministers. Hawke was a bit different, by the time he came around it was television and he had his minders…
T Duffy: And by the time Hawke came around he’d given up drinking…
W Brown: Yes–Hawke wasn’t as approachable–Holt was easily the most approachable. After that you’d have to say probably John Gorton was approachable.
T Duffy: Yes, he was very popular, a lovely gentleman.
W Brown: Yes. I’m not saying they were the best prime ministers, but they were the most approachable, courteous, personable people.
T Duffy: I seem to remember when we first reopened, one day when Gough Whitlam and John Gorton walked around Kings Hall and they were arguing about dates and times and places, but they were enjoying themselves, they were on the same wavelength. That was in so-and-so–no it wasn’t–they went on for about an hour just going around Kings Hall. It was really terrific. That would have been a lovely one to have had on tape. John Gorton died of course, and Mrs Whitlam I understand has gone into care now, and Gough is what, 93?
W Brown: I’m not sure, but Gough’s not looking all that great.
T Duffy: What did you think of the crash-through policy when he first took over government?
W Brown: Typical Whitlam. It was no different to his policy when he was Opposition Leader. He crashed through….
T Duffy: How many bills did he put through that first session?
W Brown: I’ve forgotten now but there’s never been anything like that first period when he and Lance Barnard were the two-man government, when his great point was this is the only government in the history of Australia where its members have all been returned servicemen–the two of them. I’ve forgotten how many bills he put through.
T Duffy: When the portraits of the former prime ministers first came back up in the Hall, the one they’d chosen for Gough was the Pugh one, the old hunchback one. The man looked at it and said humph, that’s not bloody staying there–and it didn’t.
W Brown: Well his crash-through policy, I mean he knew no other way of operating than to crash through.
T Duffy: He probably set a new benchmark for Australian prime ministers–I don’t think there will ever be again the amount of legislation that they got through in the first two or three sittings of his house. Do you think in hindsight that was a good thing?
W Brown: Well no, Gough was far too impatient. He made the mistake of assuming that he had the mandate. That was always his great phrase–I have the mandate. Of course he’d beaten Billy McMahon, he didn’t beat him by all that much actually in that ‘2 election, it wasn’t a landslide victory for Gough, partly because he’d previously won seats from Gorton in the ’69 election, but he assumed that he had the mandate to do everything that was in his policy speech, and of course in theory he did. But the great mass of the conservative Australian electorate didn’t know all that, and away he went. And the people reacted saying well, we didn’t know he was going to do all that so quickly. That was his mistake I think–too fast, and not explaining carefully enough what he was doing, even though much of it was of great benefit. But he just went too quickly.
T Duffy: Yes, I suppose it really was he had the mandate so he just carried on.
W Brown: Well he did have the mandate because he’s won an election, therefore he had the mandate. But the people, the mass of voters don’t understand that.
T Duffy: What would you say was the highlight of the old place? The intimacy?
W Brown: The intimacy, yes.
T Duffy: The personalisation of relations between the media and the members and senators and officers of the House?
W Brown: Yes, absolutely.
T Duffy: There’s none of that up there, is there?
W Brown: No. The intimacy was the big thing, the personal intimacy of the relationships between the media and the politicians and between the members and ministers and between members and senators, and the people. The important thing was the people, that they had access.
T Duffy: What would be your lasting memory of the most vital moment in your years in this old building? The most telling moment politically or otherwise?
W Brown: Well the biggest event would of course be the Dismissal, because that actually happened in the building in effect. It happened out at Government House, but the aftermath was all in here. That would be THE single biggest event in Australian politics ever, the Dismissal.
T Duffy: I came over later in the afternoon to send my stuff in for the Sun-Herald on Sunday and I couldn’t believe what had happened. I hadn’t heard about it. I wandered in and met someone and said what’s all the fuss about? He said didn’t you know, the government’s been sacked. I said what?
W Brown: Yes, well that’s the biggest single event in Australian politics and it was in this building, in effect. The other really dramatic event in our time I guess was Holt disappearing, the prime minister just disappearing. I mean, who else has just lost a prime minister, never found him. That wasn’t actually in the building of course, but the aftermath was in the building when Jack McEwen, having become prime minister, having persuaded Casey to make him prime minister, between them they worked it out–Jack McEwen had his press conference as prime minister in the government party room. Asked by Alan Reid, ‘can you confirm that you have been telling your colleagues that you will not serve under McMahon?’, McEwen said ‘I can confirm that, I say now publicly that I and the Country Party will not serve under McMahon as prime minister’.
T Duffy: Wally, thank you very much. That’s lovely, thanks so much indeed. We may get you back again.
W Brown: It’s a pleasure–I hope some of it is some use to somebody.
Interview with Wallace Brown - Part 2
T Duffy: This is Tony Duffy in the following interview with Mr Wallace Brown of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in this building for a long, long time. Welcome Wally, back again, thank you for coming.
Last time you told us about the workings of the house and the relationship between the media. With the advent of electronic news gathering that all changed, the personal touch seemed to go. You had a lot to do with prime ministers over the years, some were accessible, some were not. Would you like to run through a few names?
W Brown: The first prime minister that I came across was Menzies and he in fact was more accessible than people would think in that he had fairly regular press conferences and he put the Canberra press gallery above the Sydney press gallery. For instance, when he came back from overseas he almost invariably said he’d talk to the people in Canberra and he would come back here and have his press conference. Menzies was also reasonably accessible in that the building made him so.
There was one notable occasion which led to what I regarded as quite an interesting little scoop which Menzies gave to me without saying a word. One night I was going home, I came down the steps into the government lobby where the Prime Minister’s office was and as I came down the steps out of the Prime Minister’s office came Harold White, the National Librarian, followed about twenty yards behind by Harold Holt, who was then Treasurer, and Menzies. Harold White of course was lobbying madly to get a proper National Library built here. He was the National Librarian but he only had his library here in Parliament House and he was lobbying for a proper building. Anyway, as we went out there was Harold White looking fairly angry, Harold Holt and then Menzies and about ten yards behind came me. I came down the steps, Menzies looked at me, a slight nod of recognition, and on he went. As we walked along in this progression out into the Kings Hall, Menzies said to Harold, ‘for Christ sake Harold, give him is bloody library and get him off my back will you.’ Harold White then went out into the night, Menzies and Holt turned into the Treasurer’s office, presumably for a nightcap, and as I went past Menzies didn’t say a word, he just turned and gave me a wink and walked in with Harold, and I could tell from that what Menzies was doing. I wrote a story the next day saying the federal government was likely to build a National Library–and Menzies had not said a word. And the story proved correct–the cabinet approved it the next week.
Then he was followed by Holt–talking about accessibility. Harold Holt was easily the most accessible and most courteous of any of the prime ministers. As Treasurer he never had a press secretary and you could just walk into his office, knock on the door and if he was free he would say come on in and if he wasn’t free he’d say see you a bit later. Holt was extremely accessible and when he became prime minister he then had Tony Eggleton as his press secretary but he was still extremely accessible under just about any circumstances, whether it was on a trip with him in Vietnam or anywhere else. Holt was most accessible, urbane and courteous.
T Duffy: Had he not gone swimming, do you think he would have proved to be one of our all-time great prime ministers?
W Brown: I don’t know about that, but he wasn’t ever quite proved as a prime minister. He’d been Menzies’ lieutenant for so long, he didn’t have enough time to prove himself as a prime minister. It was a pity that he didn’t have a chance to prove himself a bit more. We will never know about Holt.
Who was next–John Gorton. Gorton was a loveable larrikin, individualistic, chaotic, but was also accessible to members of the press individually. He actually quite liked talking to members of the press. He enjoyed drinking with them, particularly at Fripps. Once in Vietnam, for instance, after the Tet Offensive, he had a group drinking one night at the end of an inspection of the Australian troops at Nui Dat I think, and he said to us you know, we’ve got to cut our losses on this one, the cause is good, the alliance is right, but he said we’re not going to win this war, we’ve got to cut our losses. And that was just a background, just off the top of his head, he had no hesitation in confiding with the press. Unfortunately for John Gorton the next day he went into a formal press conference in Kuala Lumpur and when he was asked about this he just mumbled and bumbled and didn’t answer the question, if only he’d been as clear as he had been the night before he wouldn’t have had any problems.
Anyway, to get to your point, Gorton was quite accessible, and on the prime ministerial plane Gorton would open his mind and his heart without any quibbles whatsoever, much to the horror often of Len Hewitt who was the secretary of his department, who was always with him. But Gorton was accessible. He ran a pretty chaotic government but there was no question–he was an Australian nationalist, he was probably the first really Australian nationalist prime minister in the modern sense, and he was always very good.
Who followed Gorton–Bill McMahon. Well McMahon was a hopeless prime minister, he was probably the worst in that the expectation was too high that he would be able to stop the Whitlam juggernaut which was just building up. Mind you, he was accessible, there was no problem about access to McMahon. In fact, the nickname of Billy the Leak is very true–any of the big leaks out of the cabinet came from McMahon. That suited the press fine of course, but when you quoted a ‘senior government source’ you were really talking about the prime minister. It was quite extraordinary, but Billy seemed to be so insecure that he felt he had to tell someone, and he had Gough Whitlam breathing down his neck of course and this worried him.
There was a famous occasion with McMahon–he did this to everybody in the gallery–I’d come back from a weekend on the NSW South Coast, pulled into my house and the phone was ringing. On the phone, no mention of who it was but there was no doubt who it was, he said with the quavery sort of McMahon singsong voice, he said I just want to let you know that the cabinet has decided to do this and that on grants for the states. The premiers were meeting the next day, it was the eve of a premiers’ conference. So I said thanks very much and promptly wrote a story which we led on the next morning and I picked up other papers and the Sydney Morning Herald had a fairly similar story and the Melbourne Age had a fairly similar story, it was all much the same. Of course the premiers were terribly angry that this had appeared in the press before the prime minister had told them. The next night the phone rang, same voice, he said I want to let you know I really gave the cabinet hell today about all those leaks coming out about that story this morning. This was the prime minister–well, it was a funny way to run the country but there was no question that McMahon was accessible. You could get hold of McMahon without much trouble, you could ring his office.
T Duffy: He had the reputation of being a bit of a ditherer, always dashing from subject to subject without really doing much about it?
W Brown: Terrible ditherer–couldn’t even make up his mind some days on how he was going to get to Sydney, by VIP plane or by Ansett or by Qantas or what he was going to do. Len Hewitt’s story of how he couldn’t just tell him let’s just go to Sydney. Billy was a ditherer–and it went right through to the 1972 election which Whitlam won of course.
So we come to Gough Whitlam.
T Duffy: That was somebody quite different, wasn’t it?
W Brown: Quite different. Whitlam had been very accessible as Opposition Leader, had some press secretaries and advisors who had grown up with members of the press gallery in effect–people like Graham Freudenberg. Whitlam was not personally so accessible as prime minister but there was never any question that it was never difficult to get information, apart from the fact that Whitlam made a point of having a formal press conference, initially once a week, then it became one a fortnight, when parliament was sitting it was at least once a month. Whitlam had more formal press conferences in this building than any other prime minister and he used it to fire barbs back and forth with members of the press gallery. In fact, the Whitlam press conferences were most enjoyable because half the time you kept getting the Whitlam wit coming back at you as well as information.
T Duffy: Whitlam was probably one of the most reformist prime ministers we’ve had–would you classify him as that? He tried to do too much too quickly?
W Brown: Yes. Whitlam to my mind was the most entertaining, possibly even intelligent, although you’d have to rate Menzies at least on a par, if not above, Whitlam for intelligence–but Whitlam was most entertaining, most newsworthy, most quick-witted of any of the prime ministers, and of course had the great source of knowledge at his fingertips, much of it trivial but nevertheless he had an enormous amount of knowledge stored away.
He made the mistake of assuming he had the mandate to change the world in what is still a very conservative Australian electorate and was then. He didn’t beat McMahon by all that much, I think he ended up with a majority of nine, so it wasn’t really a landslide. But he thought he had the mandate and the mandate to him was every word he put in his policy speech at the Blacktown Town Centre and he proceeded to try and do the lot, and he upset too many people because he tried to do it too quickly. Many of the things he did of course were noteworthy, like Medicare and education and a lot of his social measures. But the economy got away from him completely and it was only Bill Hayden who started to pull it back as Treasurer at the very end of the Whitlam government. It was unfortunate that it happened to be the Hayden Budget that the Coalition blocked.
Whitlam was not one of the really great prime ministers–a great character but not a great prime minister, I never thought. No question he’s a character, he’s carried on as if he never left The Lodge. He was in The Lodge for three years and he’s been prime minister emeritus every since, as if he’s never left it!
T Duffy: He used to come down to University Oval and watch his son play rugby for the university–Big Tony. He was always talking to people up and down the touch line–he was more or less in the light of the late Ben Chifley who mixed in with people–a gregarious man.
W Brown: An amazing man. He would get on an aeroplane, having been a navigator in the air force in World War II–his habit was, and I gather still is, when he went to board an aeroplane, RAAF or commercial, he would take out his little notebook at the bottom of the steps, kindly enquire who was the captain of the plane, he’d write that down, he’d write the flight, the time, type of aircraft, and put it in his pocket. Apparently he did this for every plane he ever travelled on and they tell me he still does. And he would often get in the plane and while everyone else was opening up whatever to read, Gough often would take out a copy of Hansard from 10 or 20 years ago and read Hansard and chortle away over Hansard. Result was when any debate came up in the parliament on anything he’d leap up with this witticism about some event that had happened 20 years ago.
He was an extraordinary man, a great character, and with the ability to take himself off. He had a self-deprecating wit, still has. His arrogance was tempered by his ability to throw it back upon himself, and still is.
T Duffy: I suppose his principal fault would have been to be a reformist in too much of a hurry?
W Brown: Too much of a hurry, yes–well, that was what Malcolm Fraser capitalised on when he became prime minister.
T Duffy: That notorious day of November 11, 1975. The House could not have seen a more traumatic twelve hours than that, could it, in its 61 years?
W Brown: No–no, here has been no event before or since, no parliamentary event, that matches the sacking of a prime minister by a governor-general, or the little session in the House in the afternoon after the Senate had passed supply. Gough, having been out to Yarralumla, having been sacked by the Governor-General, then went to The Lodge and had a steak lunch while he called in his henchmen to discuss what was going on–Fred Daly, Freudenberg, John Menadue who was Secretary of the Prime Minister’s Department, and proceeded to work out what they’d do. But they all completely forgot to tell Ken Wriedt, the Leader of the Labor Government in the Senate, that supply had been passed, or that the Coalition was ready to pass it. So Wriedt moved the motion that supply be passed, or whatever the relevant words were, and the Coalition said yes okay, we agree with that–and caught them completely off guard. Had the Labor senators been alerted to the fact that the Coalition was ready to accept supply they might well have tried a different tactic, the Labor Government might not have wheeled up the supply bills while Gough worked out what they did. But it was too late and it was a serious mistake.
T Duffy: That was always a bone of contention, wasn’t it, that the Senate had met after the luncheon break and had passed the supply bill before the actual dismissal notice?
W Brown: Yes, it had gone through the Senate before…
T Duffy: Before David Smith started to read the notice.
W Brown: That is so, and Whitlam assumed–quite a lot of people in the press gallery wondered but also thought–that Fraser having been appointed Prime Minister, when Whitlam got up in the House after lunch, supply having been passed, and moved a motion of no-confidence in the Member for Wannon, Malcolm Fraser, he thought that all that was necessary now was for the Speaker to tell the Governor-General that supply had been passed and there was no confidence in Malcolm Fraser in the House and therefore the Governor-General should reappoint Whitlam as Prime Minister. In many ways it’s a valid argument. The party that controls the Lower House should form the government. The Speaker, Gordon Scholes, tried to tell the Governor-General that this had happened but of course wasn’t given an audience, and before that could happen David Smith, on behalf of the Governor-General had announced that the parliament had been dissolved and that there would be an election on December 13. So that was that. That’s when Whitlam went out on the front steps with God Save The Queen.
T Duffy: One of my tasks in those days was to come over here and do a preview of the rugby or cricket for the Sunday Telegraph, the Canberra edition. I came over as usual and wondered what the hell was going on everywhere because there was absolute chaos. It was about half past two, no one could understand what was happening, wherever you went somebody had a different story.
W Brown: That is so. The only one who knew what was happening was Malcolm Fraser probably.
T Duffy: I’ve never seen Kings Hall in as much chaos as it was that afternoon. No one knew what had happened.
W Brown: Anyway it all came to a head pretty quickly. The extraordinary thing was that through all this Gough Whitlam really kept his cool. His statement on the front steps was an angry but quite calculated statement–God Save the Queen because nothing will save the Governor-General.
There’s a great story of course about how Paul Keating, having been appointed Minister for Northern Development or something like that only three weeks before, walking down the lobby Gough came across Keating and said ‘Keating, you’re sacked’. Even in those circumstances Whitlam maintained his sense of humour. This is the extraordinary thing–Keating you’re sacked. Why am I sacked, what have I done? Gough said we’re all sacked.
T Duffy: Keating actually told that story at the Press Club sometimes afterwards. He’d been out and he’d heard supply was passed and when he got back from the Press Club he was coming up the steps and Gough passed him on the way down and said you’re sacked.
W Brown: Anyway, that was the big day in the parliament. Then of course we had Malcolm Fraser and things changed pretty dramatically in terms of access with Malcolm Fraser in that he had press conferences pretty seldom, he had a personal prime ministerial office staff which he moulded, which was a pretty tight operation, and his press secretary. He kept it to formal press conferences which were pretty rare, or background briefings which were pretty rare. It became much more formal.
T Duffy: Aloof and distant?
W Brown: Well by his nature Malcolm was pretty aloof because he was such a shy person really, his personality. He was a very shy man. He hid it with his cold manner. In fact, I thought he was quite a good prime minister in many ways, but he certainly was not accessible like all the others. It was Malcolm who decided to build the new Parliament House in his time.
Then of course the last prime minister in this building was Bob Hawke. Hawke, being gregarious, came in on a love affair and at the start was quite accessible and was very accessible on trips anywhere, no problems with accessibility, and in this building there was no problem really. Then it all changed of course when we went up to the new building in 1988 because the new building was just not conducive to proper relationship communication between the press and ministers or the prime minister.
Here you had the Kings Hall where everybody had to cross. You could stand in Kings Hall at Queen Victoria’s Table where they had the Declaration of the Commonwealth, the table she’d signed it on. You could stand there and coming past you would be ministers, occasionally the prime minister, and public servants and members and senators and librarians and members of the press and public just mingling around there, and it was unbelievably good. It was just so easy and it was also very democratic. Probably no country in the world has had such a display of democracy as in Kings Hall.
So you get up to the new building and Hawke was just as popular with the people. Occasionally I’d walk down to the big grand marble lobby and the people would come in and you’d heard them talking away. Occasionally I’d hear them say okay, well this is all very good, but where do we see Bob Hawke? And they had to be told that Bob Hawke was about a kilometre away, across the building, through umpteen security doors, and the only chance they had of seeing him is if they queued up and went into Question Time. Well that was no good for them, they wanted to talk to Bob Hawke, but of course they couldn’t do it. And in the case of the members of the Lower House and the Senators, they no longer relate as well to one another. What ought to be Kings Hall up there is under the flagpole–it’s a lovely bit of architecture, a lovely pool and so on, but no one ever goes there. So in my view the administration of the country is being affected by the new building. It’s huge, it’s distant, it’s a lovely piece of architecture, it has a good club-like atmosphere for the members, it’s got some great artwork in it, its furniture is brilliant, the tapestries, all that sort of thing. The only problem is it’s not really a parliament. It serves all sorts of functions but not as a parliament.
T Duffy: Someone said to me the other day it’s a building without a soul.
W Brown: Well it’s a bit like that. It may be improving, I’m not sure.
T Duffy: I don’t think it is.
W Brown: The members don’t relate to senators very well. The only focal point up there, and fortunately it’s there now, is Ozzie’s Café. The Non-Members Bar is non-existent. Not only do members not relate to senators, but they don’t relate to ministers, and often ministers don’t relate to the prime minister–and I think the government is being affected.
The same happens with the media. All these ministers have armies of PR people designed to keep people out with access. It doesn’t stop them, it doesn’t stop the innovative press person, but it makes it more difficult. You have handouts in boxes to a much greater extent and things like this. I think it’s sad really. I don’t know how you get around it. It’s just a question of remoteness. It requires a conscious act on the part of journalists and on the part of ministers to break down this barrier.
T Duffy: Do you think it will ever happen up there?
W Brown: I’d be surprised. It hasn’t happened yet since 1988 and I don’t think it’s going to, by the look of it.
N Goddard: While we’re on the effect of the new building, its size and layout, on the parliament–I understand that Andrew Peacock in this building in the ‘80s was niggling away at trying to knock off John Howard as Leader of the Opposition and he couldn’t arrange it up here, but in the first year up at the new building he did just that because he could apparently move around in comparative safety manoeuvring his numbers.
W Brown: Well yes, that is so. If anything happened in this building the press picked up the vibes. But in that building, that’s quite right, all sorts of things can go on behind the scenes which probably get missed by the press for that reason. It may even be happening now with Peter Costello, we don’t know, no one is too sure. But that’s a good point about Andrew Peacock–he organised a coup without much trouble.
N Goddard: Well this implies that within the major parties that there’s not as much cohesion as there may have been here. Would you agree with that?
W Brown: I’m not sure about that. Under Howard, up until recently, there’s no question that there’s been cohesion, for whatever reason–whether it’s the dead hand of John Howard or whether, I think, it’s the power of patronage. I think the over-riding power, too much power, of patronage that the Liberal Party gives its leader. The Labor Party still has a caucus which votes and manages to keep a bit of control on what ministers and prime ministers do. The Liberal Party, once it has chosen its leader under its system, just gives that leader absolute power, including the power of patronage. So it’s a very brave Liberal MP who gets up and criticises the Prime Minister for this reason, I think. It’s interesting and very sad and a sad commentary on the Coalition that after seven or eight years now in power, as far as we can tell Liberal MPs said boo to a goose over anything that Howard did. Virtually, as far as we know, there were no real complaints or criticism from any of those Coalition MPs–gets back to your point about whether they’re united–on all the big issues. Not on cuts to education, not on Medicare, not on other health issues, not on aged care homes, certainly not on the war in Iraq, and I would have thought that those Liberal and National members of parliament would have had some constituents who did not agree. If they were truly representing those constituents they would have raised these in the party room. As far as we know it didn’t happen. The first time there’s a revolt against the prime minister is when their own superannuation is at stake. I think that is terribly sad that this is so, it’s a very sad commentary on the members of parliament and particularly on the system.
Does that answer your point? Not quite I suppose.
T Duffy: Peter Harvey was here a few weeks ago and I had the pleasure of going around with Peter for a while. He’s promised to let me know when he comes to Canberra again and we’ll do a tape. He said that place up there has got no soul. He said things like it was common knowledge that you could start a rumour in the Non-Members Bar and by the time you got to the front steps it would meet you coming down the steps. He said you go up there and you never see anybody, he said it’s like walking through a sarcophagus, you never see anybody alive. To try and get to see your MP up there is a major task.
W Brown: Well the problem was they did need better facilities. There were literally members working in a broom cupboard. John Haslem, the Liberal member for Canberra, was actually allocated a broom cupboard and that became his office. So they did need better facilities that’s for sure, but they could have done it, I think with the wisdom of hindsight, by keeping this building and going down or out to the side or going underground.
T Duffy: The original intention was to bulldoze this, it was going to be flattened to grant the grand vista going up to the new House.
W Brown: Yes. It’s a great shame that they haven’t kept the intimacy of the two chambers somehow and Kings Hall.
T Duffy: Well there’s a lot of stuff being done here. The National Party room is back to what it was now and they’ve done the Government Party room up as in Joe Lyons’ time.
W Brown: Yes, they’ve done a good job here.
T Duffy: I think they’re going in the right direction, and while we’ve got Doug Anthony and Barry Cohen I think we’ve got two very good proponents. They certainly keep their fingers on the pulse, they’re well-informed, they’re interested.
W Brown: It would never have got a go of course, it probably would not have been saved, this building, but for Paul Keating. Bob Hawke didn’t care, he never thought much of parliament anyway as an institution, he hadn’t been in it long enough, and he sort of said well who gives a stuff really about parliament. He didn’t understand parliament, he used it well but he didn’t care about preserving this place. That was when, under his period, that there were suggestions it be bulldozed. He wasn’t going to stop it, there were protests. Keating came in and Keating had a feel for heritage issues, French clocks of course, but he understood these things. It was in his Creative Nation speech I think that he said so much money will be allocated to restore Parliament House and appoint the first committee.
N Goddard: The first thing that was done was to refurbish the Members Dining Room.
W Brown: I was on the committee when that happened.
N Goddard: Wasn’t it intended that that be used for state functions as a dining room–that was Keating’s idea.
W Brown: Yes, that was Keating’s idea. I was on the first committee, the one chaired by Doug McClelland and we had various heads of departments–Bill Blick, Ralph Hunt. I was representing the press on that. The Dining Room was refurbished in that first committee and the idea was to make it for state receptions and things.
N Goddard: So we stopped at Bob Hawke, you want to get onto the next prime minister?
W Brown: Well Bob Hawke was accessible, yes. In the new building Bob Hawke was quite accessible–given the nature of the building he was as accessible as you could probably expect, and he was accessible on trips and he was certainly accessible away from the building–the new building.
After Hawke, Paul Keating not so much in the new building. By that time the whole army of press people had grown up, PR people, spin doctors. It made it more difficult with Keating and it was one of the reasons for his downfall–he didn’t really confide in anybody much. I think that was a serious error on Keating’s part. In his time as Treasurer in the new building Keating used to work the Press Gallery quite brilliantly, come up every night almost, wander around and see if you had any problems. But as Prime Minister it all changed and I think he sort of lost touch a bit with what was going on, and then he came to actually even dislike the Press Gallery, which even if you do it’s a mistake to vent your spleen on the members of the Press Gallery. He would ring up people, he became selective, people who wrote nice stories about the Keating Government were put on the information drip, leaked information. People who didn’t would generally receive a spray from the Prime Minister himself, he’d ring up and abuse them over the telephone. Well this could only go on for so long and it became quite chaotic under Paul Keating I thought. He had some good ideas but he never communicated them, not properly, not as Prime Minister. He was a much better Treasurer than Prime Minister.
T Duffy: You might be interested to know that the next rehabilitation of the building is going to be the Press Gallery on both sides. It’s going to be taken back to its original, all the temporaries have gone of course. Michael Richards, our historian, was saying that is the next big one. And the temporary roof upstairs, which is blocking the light into Kings Hall, that’s only temporary until they get the new permanent roof on and the light will be coming back through those windows into Kings Hall again. Michael said the other day that that was his next objective, to get the thing refurbished, not to make it modern, but as it was–with newspapers and scruffy old copy paper on the floor–to let people see what the place was like and the constrictions of those terrible old tin sheds on the roof. The trouble is they all went before anyone had a chance to say anything about it. We should have kept one of them just to show people what the accommodation was like.
W Brown: So we come to John Howard. I’ve left out one prime minister, which was Jack McEwen–Black Jack. I’ll go back to him.
John Howard in the new building–Howard has run a masterly campaign as a spin doctor through his press office. He’s only been able to do it because of the new building. He has not been accessible really to the Press Gallery, not very often and not to genuine probing questions over a long period. It’s generally just quick doorstops in the Prime Minister’s courtyard. This is partly because he likes to get his views across on talkback radio in Sydney, especially Alan Jones.
To come back to Jack McEwen, who of course was Prime Minister for four weeks.
N Goddard: Where did he get the nickname Black Jack?
W Brown: I think it was just his bristly eyebrows and black hair. I think Menzies gave him the name Black Jack–I’m not actually certain about that. It was his Scottish ancestry that gave him the Black Jack. He was always just known as Black Jack McEwen. Of course, as Prime Minister Jack McEwen wasn’t there long enough, he was accessible while he was there but he was only there for four weeks. Certainly as Deputy Prime Minister before and afterwards, McEwen was most accessible, like Harold Holt had been as we said earlier, you could just bowl into Jack McEwen’s office and if he was free he’d see you and if he wasn’t free he’d say so.
So McEwen was sort of of the old-school, he was most accessible, but as Prime Minister he wasn’t really there long enough. 45:37 N Goddard: Just a couple of general questions, Wal–PM’s wives?
W Brown: PM’s wives have been very important–more important probably than a lot of people think–in various ways. Dame Pattie Menzies was a very good foil to Menzies. Zara Holt, likewise. Zara was good. They travelled with their husbands. They were all very good. We forget about McEwen, I think when he was Prime Minister he’d been widowed by then, but I’m not sure about that.
Gorton’s wife, Bettina, likewise was very good as a foil to John Gorton. She was an American, she spoke Indonesian, she was an Indonesian scholar at the ANU and she loved Indonesia. The result was a good relationship really with Indonesia in many ways, she went there occasionally by herself. Bettina Gorton was quite a valuable adjunct.
Sonia McMahon–more of an adornment I think. I mean, a beautiful adornment, but not a conscious consort of the Prime Minister. Sonia was a beautiful woman and a Sydney socialite and it sort of stopped at that. Sonia will be remembered forever for the slit dress she wore at the White House–up to her navel virtually, that was the picture in all the American papers. So Sonia you can sort of skate over–she was important but she really was just an adornment to the Prime Minister I think. Maybe she softened his image a bit because he’d been a bachelor for so long.
Margaret Whitlam was a splendid consort to Gough Whitlam. Did it very well indeed. Tamie Fraser, likewise–blunted Malcolm’s hard image no end. He was a shy man and Tamie was and is still a bit of an extrovert and she was very good at functions and cocktail parties and things, whereas Malcolm would stand there aloofly waiting for someone to come and talk to him and frightened to break into conversations. Tamie would carry the conversation, often on political issues, she’d carry it in a light-hearted way. She was very good.
Hazel Hawke I thought also was excellent. I thought she was very good as a foil to Bob Hawke. She was calm, whereas Hawke would get pretty excited at times. Sure, Hawke afterwards treated her shabbily, but as Prime Minister in the period he was in The Lodge, I thought Hawke was a good prime minister and Hazel supported him well, everywhere he went. She was very good.
Annita Keating, I think also was pretty good. She was more than just an adornment. She didn’t engage quite as well as some of the others, as Margaret Whitlam or Tammy Fraser, maybe it was the fact that she wasn’t Australian, she was Dutch, she never quite mingled as well but she certainly did her best and she tried hard to be a pretty good prime ministerial wife.
So you come now to Janette Howard. Well there’s no question of the influence she has on the Prime Minister. I think it’s doubtful whether she’s actually a very good consort in that you don’t see her. At functions she’s just sort of there smiling. She’s not actively engaging people all that much, I don’t think. So I don’t rate the current one as a tremendous prime ministerial wife, but having said that there’s no question about her influence on the prime minister. No one would doubt that I don’t think, anyone who knows them.
N Goddard: What’s the expression–the power behind the throne?
W Brown: The power behind the throne–no question about that. That’s seen in various guest lists for functions at The Lodge, and during the Clinton era when Hilary Clinton was here, whoever got invited on the Prime Ministerial Launch on Sydney Harbour was vetted by the Prime Minister’s wife–all that sort of thing.
T Duffy: Do you think on some occasions there’s a bit of concern being shown about the non-use of The Lodge by the Prime Minister?
W Brown: Well there certainly is in Canberra. I don’t think outside Canberra it rates as an issue at all, but in Canberra it certainly rates, that the Prime Minister is not living at The Lodge.
T Duffy: Well Wal, thank you very much indeed. It’s invaluable and we’re so grateful. It will now, I hope, go in the archives and be there for people for years to come.
This history has multiple parts.1 2
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